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August 1, 2008

Prospectus Today

Which Ends Justified Which Means?

by Joe Sheehan

A peek inside the sausage factory.

I was sitting on a chair in front of a camera at about 4:45 p.m. yesterday, phone off, waiting to go on ESPNews to talk about what had been a very mild trade deadline. While wondering how I could stretch the White Sox' outfield/first base logjam into 10 minutes, with a kicker on the wonder of Arthur Rhodes' illustrious career, I heard a voice in my ear: I was being pushed back to 5 p.m. No problem...more time to build the case for Rhodes as the best reliever in the Marlins' pen.

I fired up my Blackberry-it's the iPhone for people who aren't intimidated by moving parts-and all hell broke loose. There was another Manny Ramirez deal in the works, and unlike the previous 81 Manny Ramirez deals, it was happening. For reals. We were 50 minutes past the deadline, but the Red Sox, Dodgers, and Pirates were about to disappoint the shut-ins desperately hoping for more news about Brett Favre. In July.

After getting the particulars, and coming up woefully empty as I wracked my brain for information on Bryan Morris, I quickly concluded that all three teams had done pretty well for themselves. "Quickly" being the operative word-I can honestly say I've never had to process baseball information for large-audience analysis with that little time for reflection, and I didn't like it. I called the trade a win for all three teams on air twice, and while I was comfortable with that conclusion at the time, the more I think about it, the more I think it's not quite that simple.

A three-team trade can be broken down more easily by looking at three two-team swaps. Let's start with the part getting the most attention:

Red Sox trade Manny Ramirez, Craig Hansen, Brandon Moss, and pay Ramirez's remaining 2008 salary ($7 million) and receive Jason Bay.

I like this trade for the Sox even if you ignore everything but the baseball. They trade two months of Ramirez, his options, and two prospects who aren't in their system's top eight or so. They get back Bay, who they'll have under contract for next season at a cost of $9 million.

The more I thought about this deal, the more I focused in on the Ramirez-for-Bay aspect. Hansen is a failed #1 prospect who in a supposed revival year has 25 strikeouts and 23 walks in the majors. He was never going to get an extended opportunity with the Red Sox. Moss is a fourth outfielder on a good team or a starter on a bad one, someone who'll hit .270 and be average in every other aspect of the game. Xavier Nady with less power and a better glove. Losing those two guys doesn't impact the Sox at all, and the cash is a wash-they'd probably have had to spend $7 million above the cost of Bay to fill a lineup hole next season anyway.

No, the key thing here is one small fact that gets lost in the names and the cities and the reputations: the Red Sox may have landed the best player in the deal. Outside of a 2007 season in which he played through a bad knee injury-arguably akin to Jason Kendall playing through injuries while with the Pirates and ruining his career earlier this decade-Bay has been one of the most productive outfielders in baseball. Since 2003, he's been inferior to Ramirez, but not by nearly as much as you might expect.

2003-2008     BRAR   FRAR   WARP1
Bay            250     39    31.6
Ramirez        313    -15    32.5

Bay's defense, per Clay Davenport's rankings, has fallen off of a cliff the past two seasons, and he rates as worse than Ramirez in this system. Even if Bay's knee injury has taken its toll, it seems likely that the difference between them defensively is exaggerated statistically. Bay is outhitting Ramirez this season by 15 points of EqA (.320 to .305), and given the seven years between them, that's not likely to be a fluke. The Red Sox have, at worst, made a lateral move in 2008, and they may well have gotten better.

Now throw in everything else. I'm inclined to believe that Manny Ramirez would have moved past his little snit, hit some homers, walked off to a standing ovation at some point, and all of this would have been forgotten. That's happened a number of times in the past eight years, and it seems to have all worked out for the team that's won two of the past four World Series. The notion that Manny Ramirez absolutely, positively had to be somewhere else the next morning is silly, and anyone who's watched this little drama play out over and over and over again should know better than that.

The Red Sox used the cover of Ramirez's bad behavior to make a trade that might not have flown three weeks prior. They made themselves better while making it look like they were addressing some nebulous chemistry issue. They picked up a great undervalued asset for 2009. This is a steal for Theo Epstein, his Bobby Abreu trade, and he deserves a ton of credit for making it happen. The Sox win.

Dodgers trade Andy LaRoche and Bryan Morris for Manny Ramirez, with the Red Sox paying Ramirez's salary through the end of the year.

This looks like a good deal for the Dodgers. They replace Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones with Ramirez, which is a huge upgrade even taking Manny out of Fenway, both offensively and defensively. They trade LaRoche, who had no place to play in the wake of the Blake deal. The Dodgers dealt a prospect they weren't going to use for a two-win upgrade in the middle of the pennant race, at no cost to payroll. That sounds really, really good.

The problem is that this trade is the equivalent of hooking your drive into the water, topping your third shot 25 yards, coming up short with the eight-iron, chipping way over the green and then back to the fringe...then burying the 35-footer for triple bogey. Sure, the putt was nice, but it's a seven on the card and you're down three strokes and a skin.

(Rick Reilly's lawyer just called, by the way.)

By evaluating the trade the way I initially did, I ignored the salient fact that Ned Colletti got himself into a position where he could trade LaRoche and Morris for two months of Ramirez and have it make sense. It makes sense because so much money was wasted on Juan Pierre, and then on Andruw Jones (full disclosure: I liked that deal). It makes sense because the Dodgers have done everything but activate Mariano Duncan in an effort to keep LaRoche from contributing. It makes sense because Colletti traded two really good prospects for Casey Blake, making LaRoche invisible and turning the last 60 games of the season into a desperate attempt to save Colletti's job.

This Dodger roster is a mess, and it's no less a mess now than it was six days ago, except that for eight weeks, the team can play Manny Ramirez and Casey Blake. Three very good prospects and a #1 pick are all gone, third base isn't really any better than it was, but man, that was a nice putt. Fist bump. You sure you only want six a side?

No, this trade is good if and only if you evaluate it in a vacuum, and I don't think you can do that. Ramirez makes the Dodgers about two wins better-there's a lot of questions about his defense outside of Fenway and his adjustment to Dodger Stadium-than they were before, but if the Dodgers had managed themselves in a remotely competent fashion up until now, they wouldn't have needed him at all.

As it is, I'm not convinced that they won't shoot themselves in the foot. Joe Torre loves him some Juan Pierre, and Pierre has enough superficially impressive statistics that Torre may have a hard time letting go. Throw in that Pierre has led off 55 of the 56 Dodger games for which he's been active since Rafael Furcal was injured, and I am in no way convinced that Ramirez's playing time will come at the expense of Slappy. I'm not sure Torre can conceive of a lineup with the eight guys he'll have if he doesn't play Pierre, because there's not a leadoff hitter in the bunch.

For each game Andre Ethier or Matt Kemp sits in favor of Pierre, the Dodgers give back a little bit of the value of what they traded for. It wouldn't take much of that to make even a great putt lip out at the end, leaving the Dodgers sitting seven-or perhaps seven games back-and wondering what happened.

Pirates trade Jason Bay for Andy LaRoche, Bryan Morris, Craig Hansen, and Brandon Moss.

It was not a bad week in Pittsburgh, maybe their best since either the tail end of the 1997 season or October of '92. If Neal Huntington didn't score the kind of booty that Jon Daniels did a year ago, he took a number of steps forward with an organization unfamiliar with the direction.

LaRoche, the prize here, should step in immediately and be an above-average hitter at third base. LaRoche becomes the best truly young player the Pirates have, and with Andrew McCutchen on his way up and Pedro Alvarez entering the system, you can see what might comprise a championship-caliber core in three or four years. The Pirates now have players who may become stars, and stars win championships.

The rest of the package adds depth to the system. Morris, a #1 pick in 2006, missed a year to surgery and was pitching well in low-A ball. He's projected as a starter in the majors, and his upside is a good mid-rotation guy. I'll TNSTAAPP that to death, but Huntington doesn't quite have that luxury. Hansen and Moss are comparable to the three non-Jose Tabata players in last week's trade: fringe major leaguers who help shore up the execrable back end of the Pirates roster. Hansen was never going to have a role in Boston, but the Pirates can take a flyer on him, and at worst he'll fit right into their pen. Moss may get a chance to play with the Pirates down a couple of outfielders, something he was never going to do in Boston. Like Nady and Marte before them, Hansen and Moss have opportunities to play larger roles for a lesser organization, which isn't a bad way to become rich.

If you throw out the three prospects, Bay for LaRoche is still a fair haul for the Pirates. They trade Bay at his peak, coming off of an injury, with just 800 PAs or so to free agency. LaRoche will be theirs through 2013, he plays a more important position, and he is just coming into his prime.

It may be hard to understand that a team could trade Manny Ramirez for Jason Bay and win, while at the same time another team trades Jason Bay for Andy LaRoche and wins, but this is baseball in the modern era: the time you have left to control a player is extremely important, and can actually almost override the talent considerations. Five-plus years of LaRoche is a better option than one-plus years of Bay, which is a better option than two months of Manny Ramirez with an option on future services. The Pirates win, and unlike with the other two teams, my opinion of their work here is unchanged.

This was a fun trade that salvaged an incredibly dull day, one that was as unenjoyable as any deadline day I can recall. The Ken Griffey Jr. trade consumed the morning, the Arthur Rhodes deal-a good one by the Mariners, and not a bad idea for the Marlins-seemed a harbinger of the flood of smaller trades, but that never materialized. I was completely wrong about this, having repeatedly pushed the idea that with the big names gone, there was plenty of room for discussion of minor deals, and we would see many of them. Talk about snapping one into the water; the list of players who were supposed to be dealt yesterday and weren't reads like a fantasy roster: Adam Dunn, Brian Roberts, Miguel Tejada, Adrian Beltre, Raul Ibanez, Randy Winn, Ron Mahay, George Sherrill, Brian Fuentes.... It was a quiet deadline, even with the two Hall of Famers being moved.

It didn't help that there was just so little going on. It wasn't just the lack of deals-four, including a minor league one-but the sheer quantity of rumors and the constancy of them and the ever-changing details. The signal/noise ratio around the deadline is always low, but it felt even lower this year, and as the attention paid to the deadline rises, that trend threatens to overwhelm the fun. Certainly, BP was a part of that this season, and having increased our focus on the rumor mill and on breaking stories, I find myself wondering if in doing so we're serving the audience, or just serving ourselves.

That's a conversation for another time. For now, we have minor upgrades in Boston and Los Angeles, as two second-place teams try and reach the postseason, and a new start on getting back to October by the new regime in Pittsburgh. It may not have been a busy deadline day, but it certainly was an interesting one.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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